This question is from William in San Francisco:
I work in a high end design showroom where all of the designers are on straight commission with no base salary. The owners give all of their job leads to only one designer even though she has worked there for seven years and has had plenty of time to build a clientele, versus the rest of us who have been there for less than a year. Also I should mention that she didn’t have previous experience when they hired her and that she doesn’t have any formal training or professional certifications or licenses at all, versus the rest of us who do have all of that stuff. One is a member of ASID and another is a CKD from the NKBA and LEED certified. I heard that the owners have even taken projects away from them and given them to her. Why would the studio’s owners choose her over us? As a result our employee turnover is really high.
Here’s my response:
The rest of the designers are probably wondering if she’s sleeping with one of the owners. She may, but my gut tells me that the owners are paying her a flat salary or a flat hourly wage without commission and so therefore they need her to generate high sales revenue in order to pay them back. That would explain why they give her all of their job leads.
If they hired her when she had no skills or training than they probably paid her minimum wage, and if they’ve given her a two and a half percent wage increase every year than her salary is still far below average. That may explain why they kept her after the housing market crashed and through the Great Recession (California’s second Great Depression).
I’m curious why she hasn’t taken any classes during the seven years that she’s worked there. Maybe she has but she didn’t tell anyone. For example, she wouldn’t want her bosses to know that she’s in school if she’s studying nursing because than they would realize that she’s leaving and they’ll replace her.
With all of that said, knowing about her sweetheart deal won’t solve your problem. You’re on straight commission with no salary at all and you can’t get job leads from your company because management has been sending them all to her. In doing so they created a conflict of interest with you.
This is a common problem in the design industry and so if you find a new job than it may happen to you all over again at your next company. In other words, moving on may be a complete waste of time. This is what I would do in your situation: Aggressively hunt down new customers in their own offices and on their own job sites, and give them a business card that has your own personal cell phone number and email address on it so that in the future when they have bid requests they’ll contact you directly.
After that you’ll have one more major problem: You mentioned that the owners take projects away from the designers who are on straight commission and give them to the salaried designer. To me it appears like she runs out of work and then the owners panic and steal projects from the others in order to keep her busy.
You can’t allow that. You’re on straight commission which means that if they take your projects than you won’t be able to pay your rent or eat. Write in your customers’ deposit/retainer contracts that you are the designer on their projects and if that changes than the contracts will be void and your customers will be entitled to a full refund.
With that said, that won’t be enough because your company probably has weekly sales meetings where the owners ask all of the designers if they have any new job leads, and if they do than they’ll be forced to relinquish the customer’s contact information even though they haven’t signed a deposit contract yet. And if they don’t have any new leads than they get fired. For that reason you’ll have to disclose your projects. With that said, I know of other designers who have exactly the same problem (managers stealing projects from them). One of them writes the wrong phone number and email address for his customers in their project files and on the company client roster, and then he stores their real contact information in his personal cell phone. A different designer shares their real contact information but she always tells her showroom manager that her client is one of her relatives (such as her brother in-law or her uncle by marriage), or that it’s an old client who she worked with at her last company.